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Art in the Age of a Great World Audience

WHAT is art? Art is more than a famous painting hanging in a leading museum. Art takes many forms. It is a manifestation of human creativity at its highest, whether by an individual or a group.

Begin with the theater. Recently, the world of drama and music has been witness to the kind of composite genius that generally comes along but once in a generation. ``Les Mis'erables'' and ``The Phantom of the Opera'' are explosions of creative achievement - in music, singing, acting, staging. The revolutionary scenes in ``Les Mis'erables'' have all the sounds and smells of living history.

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The echoes of applause from that production had hardly receded when ``The Phantom of the Opera'' burst upon the dramatic consciousness. The play doesn't merely begin or unfold; it erupts off the stage and into the minds of the audience with startling impact. It progresses through triumphs of staging and acting, all with such appeal to eye and heart as is more readily experienced than described. The total result is not just spectacular theater but a glittering demonstration of art.

Art has no standard habitat. It turns up in unlikely places. Art is Rickey Henderson of the Oakland Athletics streaking around the bases in a beautiful blur. Art is Will Clark of the San Francisco Giants stroking a baseball into the distant stands for a grand slam home run. Art is Raghit Ismail of Notre Dame returning a kickoff for a touchdown, dodging and twisting through clutching and diving opposing players as he races the full length of the football field.

Art can embrace politics. There was something undeniably artistic about Mikhail Gorbachev's visit to East Germany. He was able to deal with a volatile situation between government and people in a way that produced gratitude by the government and cheers from the people.

The tumultuous and enthusiastic shouts of ``Gorby, Gorby'' were a response to the man's political artistry. But this was hardly a new experience for a leader who has been piloting the Soviet people through hardened totalitarianism and bureaucracy toward freedom's shores.

What is most significant and new about artistic achievement in our time is that it takes place on a world stage. Walt Whitman liked to say that in order to have great poets it is necessary to have a great audience.

A great world audience today is in the process of being born.

The artist today plays to a world gallery, a reflection of the fact that a world geographic unit is moving toward world community. The world's peoples still live inside national borders, but human consciousness is being stretched to embrace a sense of common challenge and common destiny.

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People everywhere have a growing realization that they are all dependent on the same life-support system and that theirs is the responsibility to protect their fragile planet against deterioration and destruction, whether through war or environmental poisoning.

Leo Tolstoy, in a book of the same title, asked ``What is art?'' His conclusion was that the ultimate art form is creative relationships among human beings.

The new relationship of the world's peoples to one another today, even more than steel capsules soaring among the planets, or weapons of mass destruction, serves to identify and give character to our age.

Differences in history and culture persist, to be sure, but geographical separations have dissolved and a new awareness of human possibility is emerging. The artist, rather than the national spokesmen, speaks to this new situation, and in so doing helps to provide focus and inspiration for the larger audience.

Most governments have not yet caught up with the new facts of life on our planet, but there is nothing they can do that will reverse or retard the process. Thought and expression are not just an art form but the principal forces that shape civilization. It will take supreme artistry to endow these forces with spiritual and philosophical splendor, but so long as human beings are capable of asserting their uniqueness we have a chance - a very good chance - that the 21st century can become a vintage period in history.

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